Why are we here?

Finding the answer in deep-sea diving and lovemaking,
but not necessarily at the same time.

One of the most common questions I am asked is why are we here? 
I know, right? While you are at it John, why are we here?

It is understandable. I have spent many years reflecting on a lot of different aspects of life.  Consequently, it is rare that I don’t have a perspective when asked a question. 
This makes me like the most interesting bargain bin you ever came across when it comes to questions. The more you burrow the more gold you find. Eventually, it gets to the, “Why are we here?” question.  

In trying to answer I usually stumble around tripping over the complexity of that question. It is so individual. We are all here for different reasons.
Well, it turns out Jacques Cousteau had a very tidy and unifying answer.

The Big Question

I have worked with thousands of people over the years and from working with all those people it looks like we are each trying to figure something out about ourselves. Much like an athlete competes to find out how fast they are, or how high they can jump, or how much weight they can lift. We each have a central question we have about ourselves. These questions are usually broad and contain both poles of the question.
“Am I good? Am I bad?” or 
“Am I weak? Am I powerful?” or 
“Can I be loved? How much can I love?” or
“How lost can I get? Can I find my way back?” or
“How much darkness is in me? “How much can I shine?”

We spend our whole lives looking at our question but unlike most questions, the purpose of our question is not to arrive at an answer but instead to have the experience of exploring the question. 

In this, our question is similar to a jigsaw puzzle. The purpose of doing a jigsaw puzzle is not to figure out what the final image is going to look like. We already know that. The purpose of doing a jigsaw puzzle is to have the experience of wondering where each piece goes and how it fits within the bigger picture.
It is the same with our question.

We get glimpses of our question in the themes of our life. If we can stand back from our life and view it like another person might see it, we can wonder, “What might a person, who brought this event / trauma / accomplishment, into their life, be trying to figure out about themselves?”
“What might a person, who brought this bully / angel into their life, be trying to figure out about themselves?”
“These parents? This gender? These siblings? This nationality?”

I talk about the idea of the question a lot in my book, “Why do we get sick? Why do we get better,”  It is not an easy concept to communicate. It is the best I have but is a bit too vague and conceptual for my liking. I enjoy a zen koan as much as the next person but the sound of one hand clapping doesn’t feel appropriate for such a significant question.

C’est La Vie

I was watching a documentary recently about the undersea documentarian Jacques Cousteau. He was a boyhood hero of mine. I used to love watching, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” Traveling the seas in his boat,  Calypso, with his crew in their little red beanies and their silver wetsuits and cool underwater gear. It was such a different and exotic world to my little life, confined by the walls of a semi-detached suburban garden on the Northside of Dublin.

I am not alone in this admiration as Wes Anderson’s movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is such an affectionate homage to Jacques and his crew that if you haven’t already seen it I highly recommend it.

The documentary I was watching covered Jacques’ whole life. 
Yes, we are on first-name terms now. 
Sitting there in boyish appreciation I never expected there to be a truth bomb lurking in the depths. 

A press conference from the 70’s appears. Jacques is surrounded, his proud Gallic nose like a sail ready to face whatever headwinds that might come his way. He is asked off camera by what sounds like a BBC journalist, terribly British, deeply earnest, “Why do you go deep sea diving Captain Cousteau? Why do you put yourself and your crew in such terrible danger like that?”

Jacques smiles and with his very thick French accent says sweetly, “I could read a book all about lovemaking, but that wouldn’t be the same as the actual making of the love. No?” Muted laughter ripples across the press corp as Jacques goes on, “It is similar with the undersea world. I could read all about it in a book but it’s not the same.” Then he drops the banger I was not expecting, “Our philosophy is we must go and see for ourselves.”

And that is when I had an epiphany. Maybe two. 
Two epiphanies and a Hail Mary.
This is as good an explanation for why we are here as any I have heard or come to myself. 

If the opposite of an afterlife is a pre-life, then in our pre-life, we could have read all about having a human life in a book, but it is not the same. We choose to come and see for ourselves. We wanted the experience of it. 

Just like if a friend starts to tell you about a movie and it begins to sound very interesting and something you might want to watch yourself. Chances are you will ask your friend to stop telling you about the movie because you want to watch it for yourself.
You want the experience of it.

Divine Minutiae

Like most things, there are multiple levels to be seen here. On a very simple level, looking at all aspects of our life from the perspective of, “I wanted to see this for myself,” brings an element of presence to everything that would otherwise be overlooked.  

I find this very helpful in the day-to-day of life. Particularly in the repetitious aspects of living.  Brushing my teeth or washing the dishes, driving home or showering in the morning. 
These become amazing experiences when I remember that I wanted to come and experience them for myself. Then the simple act of brushing my hair or putting on a sock reveals itself as remarkable.

Becoming present in the little things begins the process of wondering what are the bigger things I came to see for myself? What is the main thing I wanted to see for myself and about myself, and how am I doing with seeing that? 

This circles back to the question.
The question I stumble about with in attempting to answer the, “Why are we here?” question.
The question that shouldn’t really be in the plural form at all.
Instead of, “Why are we here?” the real question for you and me is, “Why am I here?” 
And for that, I am very grateful to Jacques for his simple response,
“We are here to see for ourselves.”

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Photo by Yousuf Karsh


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